If teaching is hard work, acting as teacher to your own children is harder still. It takes great reserves of patience, an ability to provide structure and enforce discipline, and time—time that might more profitably be spent on one’s own interests. When my children would rather do anything else than work on their numbers or the alphabet, I’m frequently tempted to let things slide. I could use the time for my writing or my music.
So, you can imagine why Leopold Mozart has my heartfelt admiration. It takes great self- discipline to ignore one’s own interests in favor of nurturing one’s children. History has come to represent Leopold as an avaricious man, exploiting his children’s talents for his own ends, but this view isn’t supported by the Mozart family letters. The picture that emerges from them is of a very different man—one who early recognized the extraordinary gifts of both his children and took the time to develop and guide them.
As Kapellmeister—Director of music—to the Archbishop of Salzburg, Leopold’s duties would have been considerable: composing music, planning and preparing for frequent entertainments, hiring and firing musicians. Yet he was able to develop a program of study for his children that encompassed a thorough knowledge of music and went beyond it.
As a father, the younger Mozart was to recognize the tremendous amount of organization this must have required. He himself was forced to send his son, Carl, to a boarding school, which though expensive, was woefully inadequate in terms of the education it provided its students.
“In terms of his health, he couldn't be in a better place,” Wolfgang wrote to his wife, Constanze. “But everything else there is unfortunately wretched!-No doubt they can turn out good peasants!”
Board and tuition for one year at Carl's boarding school in Perchtoldsdorf near Vienna came to 400 florins, at a time when, according to Johann Pezzl, a single person could live quite comfortably in Vienna on 500 florins.
The musical tours that Leopold took the entire family on helped to establish Wolfgang and his sister as childhood prodigies. Leopold hoped the tours would ultimately result in a lucrative position at the court of one of the wealthy magnates, perhaps even the imperial court. Unfortunately, this was not to be. The younger Mozart, not content to remain in Salzburg and not entirely happy with the amount the niggardly Emperor Joseph was willing to pay him, chose to work as an independent musician, taking in students to supplement his income.
In an age when taking care of children and the household was largely a woman’s job, Leopold was surprisingly hands-on in his approach to the responsibilities both of parenthood and his household; nursing Wolfgang through his illnesses, compounding medicines to relieve fevers and colds, taking care of such domestic arrangements as the hiring of servants.
Describing one such occasion to his friend Hagenauer, Leopold says he lifted the young Wolfgang out of his bed "walking him back and forth across the room" to relieve an inflammation in Wolfgang's throat. "He had an astonishingly high fever, but I gradually reduced this with pulvis antispas Hallen and, God be praised, he was up again within 4 days..."
In his later years, Leopold found the time to arrange for servants for both his children and to take an interest in the upbringing and education of Nannerl’s step- children, sending lengthy letters on the subject to Nannerl and her husband.
"One can't be careful enough when bringing up young children," Leopold writes to his son-in-law. "First and foremost are good manners and knowledge, enlightened and sound common sense and skill; money and fortune are secondary to these in the eyes of every sensible person."
Here was a man who was able to devote his attention to the minutiae of household management, his children’s education, as well as support his family and keep abreast of political affairs. A distinguished composer and violinist in his own right, Leopold Mozart could have chosen to focus on his own musical career. Instead he devoted himself to furthering his children’s interests. His own musical productivity declined as a result of the effort he expended on his children's education.
As a parent, I have a newfound appreciation for what Leopold was able to achieve with his children.